The Challenge Attracting Doctors to Rural Communities

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Given the vast, overwhelming size of the Australian continent and the fact we also have one of the world’s highest urbanisation rates (89% according to the CIA World Factbook 2017), Australia is home to a large number of tiny, remote communities spread throughout the interior of our landmass. As a result of distance, many of these rural and remote communities suffer from a lack of reliable access to the basic public services city folk take for granted – including healthcare. This longstanding problem is borne out by government figures, including a 2013 COAG (Council of Australian Governments) report which found a ratio of just 135 doctors per every 100,000 residents in remote areas, compared to a much more favourable ratio of 335 in the capital cities. So what exactly is causing this shortage of qualified doctors and medical staff in rural communities? HealthBuzz investigates in more detail…

There Are Numerous Reasons Behind Australia’s Rural Doctor Shortage

The Top Three Causes of Rural Doctor Shortages:

  • Most University Medical Schools & Students are from the Big Cities
    A big reason contributing to Australia’s rural doctor and health workforce shortage is the fact the majority of Australia’s 20 medical schools are located in our big capital cities and urban areas, with the highest concentration being in Metropolitan Sydney which houses four. With up to 80% of students at these medical schools originating from the big urban centres themselves, most prefer to remain in the cities upon graduation and entry into the workforce. Only 10% opt for the tree change of a rural community. Making remote locations more attractive to fresh graduates and keeping them in those communities once they arrive is one of the keys to solving this issue.

  • The Downsides of Isolation & Potential Danger Are Greater Than Existing Incentives
    Another barrier to growing the rural healthcare workforce lies in redesigning existing incentives so they overcome or adequately compensate for the isolation many remote practitioners complain of enduring as well as the perceived dangers – including risks posed by wild animals, extreme heat and weather conditions, and the crime issues which are present in certain remote indigenous communities. Many government bodies are responding to this need by offering very lucrative packages to GP’s (general practitioners) who are willing to shift from the familiar comforts of the city for the unknown surrounds of a rural posting. This includes one rural hospital in Victoria offering a $400,000 per annum package for a local doctor position which requires 24 hours on-call access, a figure not without precedent in the sector.

  • New Graduates Must Undertake Interns & Further Training in Big City Hospitals
    The final barrier we’ll cover is the long-standing requirement for medical graduates to undertake further postgraduate training in their specialist field in large training hospitals which are predominantly located in the big cities, close by to university campuses. Even if graduates would like to work in rural areas – and figures indicate up to 36% do – the need to locate themselves close to a big city hospital for another few years of training, at the very same time they may be contemplating starting a family or taking on a mortgage, means they’re much less likely to leave once fully qualified. Providing more opportunities for graduates to complete this further training in rural locations, whether that be achieved by opening another rural medical school (as proposed for the Murray Darling region) or by equipping more country hospitals with training facilities will no doubt have a big impact on the accessibility of this basic public good to rural Australians.